James Masayoshi Mitose The First American Kempo Master

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

I do not like the politics of the martial arts, being one to whom loyalty is essential to proper development of the true martial arts spirit. Politics are just ways for people who no longer want to follow their martial arts instructors to break off without regard to loyalty or consideration, to find another organization or create one, without respect for the masters who helped them reach the point where they are at. There are those who tell stories of past master hoping to somehow reap rewards off of them. However, there are others who share their knowledge of the masters for the sake of posterity. I have been fortunate to have received information about James Masayoshi Mitose from those who knew him back in the old days in Hawaii and those who knew him just prior to his death.

I am going to put together information gleamed from these people, as well as, information I have received from court sources about James Masayoshi Mitose's life. I want to thank these individuals who have contributed to the story that is about to unfold. Arnold M. Golub, who corresponded with me and acted as intercessor between myself and Thomas Barro Mitose; Bruce Juchnik, the man who spent the most time and in correspondence with James Mitose during his incarceration; Nimr Hassan, the personal senior student prior to Mitose's incarceration; and Ramon Lono Ancho, a genuine master of the martial arts and gentleman warrior, who trained with Mitose back in the Hawaii days.


All conclusions in this article are mine. If anyone finds fault with them, please place any blame on me. From having talked to the above individuals, studied the personal writings of James Mitose, and read the many 'sources' that purport to be about the Mitose life. I plan to state in this article my personal conclusions and deal with the inconsistencies of Mitose's martial arts and life. Once again, the conclusions are mine, as my personal opinion. Nothing more can be said since the full truth went to the grave with Mitose, thus the best we can hope for is an attempt to piece the truth together. This is my best effort.

James Masayoshi Mitose was born in 1916 in the United States territory of Hawaii. Mitose was to be a Kibei, a person born in the United States but educated in Japan, thus at the age of five, he was sent to Japan for training.

According to Mitose himself, he was educated in Western philosophy, as well as, in the state philosophy of Shinto, and Buddhism. Part of the confusion surrounding Mitose is his 'personal' history, in which he says that he was educated by his family, which many have taken to mean that he was trained in the martial arts by his family members, which he seems to indicate, as well as, having received his education in a Rinzai Buddhist temple. There are those who think that Mitose’s turn to Christianity in the United States was a late development in his life, but Mitose personally said that he was taught about Jesus in Japan.  He studied a form of Christianity whose tradition is based on Jesus’ journeys in the Far East and time in India.

According to sources from the early days in Hawaii, when Mitose started teaching after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, since he did not agree with the war effort of Japan, it has even been said that he protested the war while living in Japan, and since he felt like most people of the time, that Hawaii would be invaded, he called his art simply Kempo and would refer to it only as Shorinji Kempo, giving a history from Bodhidharma.

Now this is a clue to where his training originated. While China is sometimes acknowledged as the birthplace of martial arts, and sometimes considered the root of Jujutsu, the story of the Shorin temple and Bodhidharma are the foundation of Okinawan Karate, not Japanese Jujutsu, with a few exceptions. There are those who have said that Mitose was trained through the Yoshida lineage, but this seems to be inaccurate. In the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, Kosho Ryu is listed, but as a Karate art not a Jujutsu art, which means that it is of Okinawan origin, not Japanese. Also, the Yoshida clan is mentioned and there is a Ryu that deals specifically with what was taught to the Yoshida clan, there are several branches of this system but they are all known as Yoshida Ryu.

While the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten lists many facets about Ryu where a lineage is known, in regard to the Kosho Ryu there is no lineage given. This could be so, if Mitose, who traveled extensively to Japan, was the founder of the system and did so after being in the United States for a period of time.

What then is the history of Kosho Ryu? What did Mitose learn and why did he claim its roots as being Shorinji Kempo (Shaolinssu Chuanfa)?

Robert Trias – Friend of Mitose

Let us begin with the fact that Choki Motobu's picture was in Mitose's first book, What is Self Defense?. According to Robert Trias, who was a friend of Mitose back in the Hawaii days, Mitose did in fact teach the same system as Choki Motobu, which is seen in the fact that the seal which Trias originally used, seen in his book, My Hand is My Sword is the same as the seal used by Mitose.

Also, Mitose used the Makiwara, an Okinawan device, not a Japanese one. However, Mitose used it in some different ways than most Okinawan styles, which we will deal with later.

It is well known that in Okinawa, the Karate and Kempo systems always have traced their arts back to the Shaolin temple in China, something not done by the Japanese Kempo systems, which many times acknowledge a Chinese root, but not specifically from the Shaolin temple. (With the exception of the modern Kempo system Nippon Shorinji Kempo founded in 1946 by Michiomi Nakano, So Doshin.  There is also the belief that Chen Gen Pin was a Shaolin exponent and taught his skills to Fukuno, Isogai, and Miura who added what he taught to their Jujutsu systems.)

It might be asked, why did Mitose want to conceal the Okinawan connection of his art? The answer to this is two fold. First of all, Mitose was a very spiritual and peaceful man, as Ramon Lono Ancho who knew him in Hawaii put it, "he was a very nice person, if he wasn't, I wouldn't have studied with him".

Karate as taught to Mitose by Choki Motobu, was complete and effective, yet Motobu himself had a less than sterling reputation. He was known as a person who would engage in combat for what most people would consider less than appropriate reasons. However, this reputation, while somewhat deserved, was not totally accurate.

Choki Motobu – Kempo

Choki Motobu was born of an aristocratic Okinawan family, he could not accept the fact that he was to be treated like a commoner, a typical problem among many no longer aristocratic families of Japan, after the start of the Meiji Restoration and into modern times.

When Motobu began teaching in Japan, he was readily accepted as a great martial arts master by many people, who treated him with the respect he deserved as a genuine master teacher. With those people and many others who simply treated him as a nice, noble gentleman, Motobu was refined and dignified, if somewhat humorous. But for those who treated him like he was a country bumpkin, he was gruff, short, and could become physically intimidating.

People of other martial arts lineages have maligned his reputation, but those who knew him well, specifically; Tatsuo Yamada, Yasuhiro Konishi, and Kosei Kuniba, regarded him as a funny, humble, yet supremely confident martial arts master.

Among those in his entourage, was Seiko Fujita, who as a leading martial arts historian in Japan, with mastery in Namban Satto Ryu Kempo and Wada Ha Koga Ryu Ninjutsu, encouraged his students to research and study the Okinawan martial arts. He set the example himself by studying under the tutelage of Choki Motobu. This fact will prove to be very important later.

Choki Motobu tried to immigrate to Hawaii in the early 1930s, it is possible that Mitose knew that Motobu was not considered a respectable citizen by immigrations and did not want to totally associate his art with Motobu due to that fact. He did recognize Motobu as the "great master of Karate Kempo" in his book. This is significant if one realizes that the term "great master" would not be used except for one's own teacher. Note that he has the picture of another "master" which he designates as such.

Plus, according to material from Robert Trias, Mitose was definitely of Motobu's system. As can be seen in the first book Mitose wrote.  Many of the examples of how to hit and kick, as well as, the self defense techniques themselves very much parallel Motobu’s Kempo.

The second reason Mitose wanted his art to be considered Shorinji Kempo, that is Shaolin martial arts, is so that there would be a Chinese history, not a Japanese one, which would have been impossible to teach during the violent times of World War II.

If one reads Judo and Jujutsu manuals written during World War II, one will read something along the lines of; "The Japanese learned their martial arts from the Chinese and developed their Jujutsu from it." Even combat manuals such as FM 21-150 Unarmed Defense for the American Soldier (1942) tells a similar story, dealing with Chinese monks and the development of Jujutsu. It carries the story further, saying the Japanese were trying to hold back the development of the American practitioners and that the development of American Judo far outstripped the martial art of the Japanese.

Mitose would have been aware of this attitude and the history of these manuals, thus he created a "history" that used this ideal and contained the truth that his Okinawan training actually did have a direct lineage back to Shorinji monks and the martial arts that developed through them and were modified by his "ancestors", meaning the martial arts masters before him, even though they were actually Motobu rather than Mitose.

Kosho Ryu – Koga + Shorei

If we then take it that James Masayoshi Mitose actually learned his Kempo from Choki Motobu, where did the term Kosho come from, a term not used until he was actually on the American continent. In his history, Mitose says that one of the Mitose family meditated on Shorinji and came up with Kosho. This is true, but I believe it was Mitose who did it. Thus there is truth in the history he told, but as happens so much of the time, Mitose followed the idea of Oriental concept, that when something is valuable, give it a more ancient date to show it's value. In the Orient this is not considered falsifying, but a way of accrediting value.

Also consider the fact that Karate at the time of World War II was considered a Japanese martial art, not recognized as a separate country's, Okinawa, skill. And those outside of Japan knew nothing about Karate, it was a time when Jujutsu (Judo) was the only empty hand art known in the Western world.

Mitose taught Kempo Jujutsu, yet it was more than just the Kempo Karate of Choki Motobu. This can be seen by the fact that the blows used by Mitose on the Makiwara were different than normally done by Okinawan Karateka.

The use of the bottom fist is indicative of a type of Koppo used by some branches of Ninjutsu training. There is also the fact that Mitose gave to his student, Nimr Hassan, a seal that listed Koga, Shorei, and Kosho, as the three systems, which he taught. The arts Ninjutsu, Karate, and Kempo were listed as well.

Koga Ninjutsu

If it is true, that Mitose studied Koga Ryu Ninjutsu, from whom did he learn it? A Japanese Ninjutsu master living in Canada verifies the fact that Seiko Fujita did in fact teach Koga Ryu Ninjutsu and that Mitose studied with him during his time in Japan. This makes perfect sense, since Fujita was part of the entourage that trained with Motobu.

It is believed then that Mitose trained in Kempo Karate (known variously as Motobu Ryu, Shuri Ryu, and Shorei Ryu) and Ninjutsu, specifically Koga Ryu, and possibly the related Namban Satto Ryu Kempo, which was also taught by Seiko Fujita. There has always been a close relation between Kempo and Ninjutsu, mainly through the temples where Kempo developed and the Nimpo concept of patience as a religious discipline and it's application to espionage.

What about the skills that Mitose taught? Those who knew him directly say that his skills were excellent. His Jujutsu skills, that is his grappling skills, were not typical and this is easily understandable, if he did in fact train with Choki Motobu and Seiko Fujita.

Choki Motobu originally trained under two great Okinawan masters, Yasutsune Itosu and Kosaku Matsumora. Like many Karateka of the time he emphasized striking skills and excellent countering ability. However, his brother, Choyu, was a master of the more ancient Okinawan martial art, most appropriately called Bushi Te, which means the warrior hand.

He was taught by his father, Chosho, and by the great warrior, Sokon Matsumura. While Bushi Te has excellent striking skills, there are special, very sophisticated, grappling skills, which served the purpose of the Okinawan warriors, who were the peace officers of their island.

This Okinawan grappling art is known by many names; Torite, Gyakute, Toide, or Tuite. It has been described as an Okinawan Jujutsu, and even as a form of Aikido or Aikijujutsu. The Okinawans developed a very advanced form of grappling, which has been kept secret until it's dissemination starting in the 1980s through the efforts of Seikichi Uehara and some of his top students, most noticeably; Shian Toma and Seitoku Higa.

However the story goes that on a trip back to Okinawa, Choki told his brother how famous he was on the 'big island' and how he was considered the greatest martial artist alive by the Japanese. It is then said that Choki asked Choyu if he would like to 'have a test of skill', a little Okinawan tradition known as, Tegumi. This was a friendly match of strength, not a fighting bout like Kumite. Witnesses say that Choyu handled Choki like a child, throwing him around the room easily. At this point Choki asked for lessons in the family art, which his brother agreed to give him.

Mitose's Jujutsu could have been the Torite of the Motobu family, which is why it was so different than typical Jujutsu being taught on Hawaii at the same time. However, Mitose's art did include techniques easily recognizable to those of advanced skills in both Ninjutsu and Aiki related martial arts. Seiko Fujita’s empty hand fighting skill had been described as a dynamic form of Aiki with a strong emphasis on striking.  We know that much of this came from his Namban Satto Ryu Kempo, but Fujita was a sponge when it came to martial arts skills, and was training partners with a lot of the greatest masters alive in Japan. He absorbed everything he could into his personal fighting discipline. Much of Mitose’s methods can be seen to be methods used in Namban Satto Ryu Kempo, for those who know and understand the art.

Aiki and Ninjutsu – Related Disciplines

It is told that James Masayoshi Mitose did a demonstration at Ed Parker's school in which he demonstrated some very 'unusual' techniques. Parker told his students to disregard what they had seen as impractical. What Mitose did was make the mistake of showing very advanced skills to Parker's students, which were beyond their comprehension, he should have shown more basic techniques, which would have been more easily grasped.

Interestingly enough, Mitose related the event to one of his students. That student told me the story and related the technique, which Mitose performed, which was so criticized. It turns out that it is one of the advanced grappling techniques taught in both Aikikai Aikido and Gembukan Ninjutsu.

Regardless of where his training came from, from the two aforementioned instructors or people who were their students, it is obvious he did know Kempo and Ninjutsu. Having witnessed the performance of his students, one can see the Torite of Okinawan martial arts; the Koppo and foot work of Ninjutsu; as well as, other martial arts influences, possibly from the Japanese Kempo to which he was exposed. It is probable that Mitose also had an opportunity to study Judo during his education, since it was a required subject in many schools. What is known is that Mitose's martial arts skills were phenomenal. Shortly before his death a much larger individual, who seemed to have been a weightlifter, attacked Mitose. Mitose was sitting down when the attack started. The witness saw Mitose rise from his sitting position, the two bodies collide, and then Mitose was sitting in his chair again. The attacker was knocked down senseless.

Mitose's students all had excellent martial arts skills, which means that he must have taught them well. While a students' hard work determines how good they will be, unless there is validity in what they are taught they will be limited in their ability to progress. Mitose's students from the Hawaii days, from the early 70s, and even those who received his verbal instruction at the end, have superior skills from having been taught by Mitose.

A little known fact about Mitose is that he was awarded upon the word of Morihei Ueshiba the rank of Judan and position as remonstrant of Aikido. Those who know anything about Ueshiba know that he was a very religious man who was a good judge of people. To give to Mitose the recognition and power to be a remonstrant shows his trust in the integrity of the man.

The Last Chapter

The last chapter of Mitose's life is a tragedy and will now be addressed. I have been told that in the early 1970s Mitose was collecting money with which to build a monument to American/Japanese relations. It seems that when Japanese immigrants came to the United States and were having financial trouble, he would use money from the monument fund to make loans to them.

According to some, these loans were done in a Japanese manner, no written record, just an honorably agreement between the associates. The terms were simple, if the person was not successful they would not have to repay the loan, but if the person was successful, then they would repay the loan tenfold.

It seems that one such couple, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Namimatsu, had lived with Mitose for a while and had received one of the loans from Mitose. Mitose used traditional Japanese medicinal methods to treat a condition of Mrs. Namimatsu. Eventually, the couple moved out to their own home, and Mr. Namimatsu, according to some sources made payments to Mitose in regard to the loan, while others say he was not making any payments at all.

Regardless, other Namimatsu family members, felt that the repayment of the loan was more a form of extortion, rather than a repayment of the loan, and complained to the authorities. What happened next is subject to interpretation, but a Mitose student went to collect a payment from Mr. Namimatsu.

According to what I was told, Mr. Namimatsu said he had a check, which the student just needed to come by and get. When he arrived Mr. Namimatsu refused to make the payment. The student attempted to reason with the man, who was an experienced Jujutsuka, and a fight broke out. According to the student involved, there was a fight and Mr. Namimatsu was knocked to the ground, but he was alive when the student left the house.

Namimatsu was found dead and the student was accused of murder, with Mitose being charged as well. The charges were; murder of Frank Namimatsu, attempted murder of Toshiko Namimatsu, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, grand theft, and solicitation to commit murder. He was found guilty of all six charges, specifically murder in the first degree.

In an appeal the solicitation to commit murder count was reversed. Yet nothing else was considered in the appeal, in spite of the fact that Mitose was convicted under circumstantial evidence. It is interesting to note that Mrs. Namimatsu (Toshiko) was also attacked, yet the student says that he did not see her at all that night.

There were seven points to the appeal, with the most severe one being a charge of perjury in regard to testimony and hearsay by people who believed that Mitose was guilty of extortion or such related activities. In spite of the fact that conflicting testimony is admitted and it is also admitted that the Japanese testimony was not accurately translated, plus the fact that it seems some police coercion may have been used in gaining certain testimony, the appeal was denied.

Mitose was sent to prison, where he was to serve out each conviction concurrently. Basically this was a life sentence. The student went to prison and was released in three years, serving in basically a minimum-security setting. Mitose was sent to maximum security at Folsom Prison.

While in prison, Mitose ministered to other prisoners, continuing his pursuits as an ordained Christian minister. The warden and associate warden both allowed Mitose to work at their homes, noting that he was exemplary in his work and got along well with other people.

Most of all Daye Shinn, Mitose's lawyer, wrote that he felt the Mitose trail was one of injustice. He believed that Mitose was an innocent man, who was unjustly treated because he was Japanese. It was Mr. Shinn's contention that Mitose should have been found not guilty of all charges.

My Opinion

At this point I have to express my own opinion on this matter. From the research I have done, the people I have talked to, and a study of the appeal papers and other court records, I really believe that James Masayoshi Mitose and his student were innocent. Yes there was a fight between the student and Frank Namimatsu, but I believe the student when he says that he did not kill the man.

We might wonder who did? There has been talk that the Yakuza might have been involved in having Mitose's name smeared since he was loaning money to people they would have been able to extort if it were not for him. There are those who say that other matters were involved, which I prefer not to get into, simply because the people are dead and I do not want to malign the memory of those individuals. There are a lot of other explanations to the death of Frank Namimatsu, which were not explored simply because the authorities had the person they believed were guilty and did not fully investigate the situation.

Was Mitose guilty of extortion? It looks like he was, but only due to ignorance of the law. He thought he was doing people a favor by loaning them money, and just in getting the returns where it was deserved. American law does not agree with this method, thus Mitose may have overstepped the bounds of the law, but was this severe enough to engender him dying in prison, probably not.

Regardless of whether or not Mitose was guilty, there are two facts that must be understood and which should be focused upon. First of all, if Mitose and the student were guilty, they paid their debt in prison. They have paid for the crime and now deserve a fresh start, Mitose in memory and the student in life.

There is a saying from Shakespeare, "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones". This is wrong, this is not just, nor Christian. If Mitose and the student did commit the crime of which they were convicted, then they have paid the debt and the evil that they did should be buried, while the good that they did, and the good that the student can still do should be focused upon.

Mitose’s Kempo

Which brings us to the second fact, James Masayoshi Mitose brought to the United States the first style of Kempo. Regardless of where it came from, Mitose taught 'us' Kempo. My first instructor was Richard Stone, Ramon Lono Ancho, who was trained directly by Mitose, trained him. I have had the privilege of meeting Professor Ancho and his Kempo is great, what Stone taught me has been the foundation of everything else I have ever learned. These men are good in the martial arts because they had a good foundation, a foundation that started with James Masayoshi Mitose.

I believe that Mitose was a great man, a great martial artist, and a great teacher. The Kempo he brought to the United States has been a blessing and a foundation for many martial artists, myself included. Mitose helped us known the real Kempo, a Kempo that is as it was taught in Japan and Okinawa, before modernization. A Kempo that is an effective form of self defense, yet which is based on compassion, never doing more harm to an assailant than needs to be done. This is the way and philosophy, which James Masayoshi Mitose taught.

This is why I cannot believe that Mitose was the villain that some people try to make him out to be. Given the trust and respect of such individuals as Morihei Ueshiba and Ramon Lono Ancho, it is hard to see Mitose in the light others have cast him in. The American justice system does it's best to protect the innocent and punish the guilty, but it is still a system established and run by humans. Mistakes do happen. In the case of James Masayoshi Mitose and his student, I believe a mistake was made. In my opinion, Mitose was an innocent man. Undeniably, James Masayoshi Mitose was the first American Kempo master and we should always remember his contribution to the world of martial arts.

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